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June 8, 2017
Staring Into the Abyss
After Chris’s second spinal surgery in April 2007, we thought we were starting to get our lives back on track. During those first couple of weeks of her recovery, I was working from home again. Chris needed help with everyday tasks, and her stamina was only slowly returning. I also needed peace of mind that Chris would be able to safely maneuver around the house on her own once I returned to the office at the ad agency.
After a couple of months, Chris was back at work herself, resuming her career in commercial office furniture sales. Once again, our employers had provided us with outstanding support during our time of crisis, and had great empathy for our situation.
In April of 2008, Chris and I went back to see her neurosurgeon for her one-year checkup. He asked her to get an MRI so that he could make sure that she was clear of spinal tumors. After Chris had the MRI scan, we went back to see her doctor about a week later to review the scan results. At that appointment, his news floored us: Chris had another spinal tumor.
This new tumor was larger and more insidious than the previous two. The tumor was wrapping itself around Chris’s spinal cord, and it was also dangerously close to her heart, growing into her aorta. The surgery that Chris needed would be very complex. Our surgeon admitted that he was in over his head, and so he referred us to a brilliant neurosurgeon at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC.
On that warm, sunny spring morning after our meeting with the doctor, Chris and I hugged each other and we cried as we stood in the parking lot next to her car. Later that day, Chris called for an appointment at Duke, and because of the urgency of her situation, she was able to get on the doctor’s schedule for the following week.
At our consultation at Duke, our new doctor reiterated what the neurosurgeon in Charlotte had said: the surgery would be very complex. He also told us that the surgery would take place over two days, with about seven to eight hours of surgery each day. We listened attentively to the neurosurgeon as he explained the procedure and told us what we could expect from the surgery and subsequent recovery. The doctor agreed that the situation was urgent, and he wanted to do the surgery within three weeks.
Once we arrived back in Charlotte that afternoon, we put our Life Emergency Plan and our Career Emergency Plan in motion once again so that we could rearrange our lives for the next several weeks. For the second time in barely over a year, we once again had a crisis.
A few weeks later, we returned to Duke University Hospital for the surgery. Shortly after we arrived at the hospital early on that Tuesday morning, I gave Chris a kiss just as the nurses wheeled her hospital bed off to surgery, and said that I would see her soon. Although in reality, I wouldn’t be able to speak to her again for nearly a week. The surgeon wanted to keep Chris unconscious for several days (a medically induced coma) because the pain from the surgery was going to be severe, and it would be less taxing on Chris’s body if she was kept unconscious.
At the end of that first day of surgery, Chris’s father and I met with the neurosurgeon in a small consultation room located adjacent to the waiting room. The surgeon was exhausted and said that he had news to share with us, but that not all of it was good. He told us that Chris had made it through the surgery, but there had been a complication: Chris suffered a stroke in her spinal cord during surgery, and he wasn’t sure if she would be paralyzed or not. He said that only time would tell. Chris’s father and I were stunned at the thought that Chris could be paralyzed from the waist down. As we ate dinner together that night, we were barely able to speak about the events of the day. A couple of days later, we somehow made it through another grueling day as Chris underwent several more hours of surgery.
Over the course of that week, I sat with Chris in the neurosurgery ICU — holding her hand, speaking softly to her, just wanting to be close to her. When the doctors finally woke her out of her medically induced coma, it was one of the happiest moments of my life: I could talk to Chris again and look into her eyes. She was heavily sedated, but coherent. She had no idea that six days had elapsed since she had gone into surgery. It was now Monday morning.
Over the next two weeks in the hospital, Chris made slow but steady progress in her initial recovery. We gradually learned that the effects of the stroke were not debilitating, and Chris was eventually able to walk, albeit very slowly, with the aid of a rolling walker. She would also need a very long recovery at home once she got out of the hospital, and I would need to work from home again, for even longer than I had done after her previous two surgeries.
Two months later, we returned to Duke to meet with the neurosurgeon so that he could evaluate her progress. Overall, he was happy with her physical recovery, which was right on track. However, after the initial discussion about how she was feeling, her stamina level, and her mobility, he said that he had some news to share with us.
What the surgeon told us next would forever alter the course of our lives. As he shared his news with us, Chris and I both felt as though we were staring into the abyss. We held each other close, and the tears streamed down my cheeks as we desperately tried to fathom what he had said. Chris was shaking and she sobbed uncontrollably.
The doctor had told us that Chris had a rare type of bone cancer, and that she likely had less than five years left to live.

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Scott G. Howard worked in the advertising agency business as a media buyer and media director for nearly twenty-five years. He is now an author, storyteller, and freelance writer, and writes from his unique perspective on relationships and life. Scott was born in Syracuse, NY and resides in Charlotte, NC, where he has lived for almost twenty years.
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